Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Critics have questioned the Indonesian government's priorities as it prepares to evict longtime residents of a small island to make way for a $25 billion development that includes a solar panel factory and a tourism resort.
The island of Rempang, part of the Riau Islands archipelago in the Malacca Strait, has been awarded in an 80-year concession to Chinese industrial giant Xinyi Glass. The company plans to build the world's second-largest glass and solar panel factory there, taking advantage of the abundant quartz sand around the island. The nearly $12 billion factory is itself part of the wider Rempang Eco-City development that also includes an ecotourism resort and upscale housing estate.
Residents of Rempang, many with a family presence going back eight generations or more, were only informed in early September that they were being evicted by the end of the month. They've staged several protests since then, drawing a heavy-handed response from the security forces, who fired on protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas, including at a middle school. Police have arrested at least 50 protesters, prompting concerns of human rights violations from the National Commission on Human Rights.
While the administration of President Joko Widodo has urged calm, it insists the eviction will go ahead and that nothing will stand in the way of the investors – a position that goes against the president's earlier promises to the Rempang residents.
"We deplore the fact that the government only thinks about investment again and again, which means it's always prioritizing the economy," Ferry Widodo, an activist from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), told Mongabay.
He took issue with the government's main line of reasoning, which is that the Rempang islanders don't have legal title to their land, and that they're therefore considered illegal squatters who can justifiably be evicted.
"The government has to know that Rempang isn't just some empty island," Ferry said. "People have lived there since 1834."
Project of 'strategic national importance'
The coordinating minister for investments, Luhut Pandjaitan, who is also among President Widodo's closest advisers, told local media on Sept. 19 that he hoped the protests hadn't spooked Xinyi and its local partner, PT Makmur Elok Graha (MEG).
Mahfud M.D., the coordinating minister for security affairs, described what's happening not as an eviction but rather an "emptying" of squatters from the land, given that the concession had been awarded in 2004.
The government, he said, is simply preparing the land for the investors who already have permits to start what has officially been categorized as a project of "strategic national importance."
This categorization gives the government eminent domain powers to appropriate land, even if it's already occupied, and award it to private developers. Activists say the Rempang case is just one of a growing number of incidents where the government has deployed security forces to stamp out resistance to such projects.
Zenzi Suhadi, the director of Walhi, said "strategic national importance" has become a convenient justification for the repressive use of force to push through various projects. With Indigenous and local communities often at the brunt of this force, subject to evictions and loss of livelihood, Zenzi questioned who the true beneficiaries of such projects were.
"Who is the development is for? Who will get the benefit?" Zenzi said as quoted by local media. "The benefits obtained [by the communities] might be smaller than the losses they suffer."
Data from the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA) show there have been at least 73 conflicts related to projects of strategic national importance, including the Rempang case.
Pretext for a land grab
KPA secretary-general Dewi Kartika disputed the government's view of the Rempang residents as squatters, calling their eviction a land grab on the pretext of securing this "strategically important" project.
"It's clear that what happened was a violation of the constitutional rights of the Rempang people, because if we see the history of land ownership there, the villages on the island are old villages that have existed long before Indonesia's independence [in 1945]," she told Mongabay.
Dewi pointed out that most of households in Rempang have a letter of land ownership, known as an SKT, which is a prerequisite for obtaining a title deed. The SKT also proves the communities have the legal right to live on the land, and hence no project should have been allowed there without obtaining the residents' free, prior and informed consent, she said.
"If we refer to the 1960 agrarian law, there shouldn't be any business permits issued on lands occupied by people, especially if these are old villages," Dewi said. "What should actually be prioritized is the acknowledgment of the people's land rights [through title deeds]."
While people have lived on the island since 1834, and most already have SKT letters, they reportedly haven't been able to obtain title deeds because of an instruction in 2002 from the then-mayor of Batam, the largest city in the Riau Islands, ordering local administrators in Rempang not to issue title deeds.
Pre-election promise, post-election U-turn
The issue of title deeds for the Rempang islanders came to the national fore again in 2019 – this time raised by none other than President Widodo. During a rally in Batam in April 2019, while campaigning for reelection, Widodo declared that the islanders should have title to their land, and promised to have this done within three months.
At a cabinet meeting the following month, after winning the election by the narrowest margin in Indonesia's democratic history, Widodo told his ministers that any company awarded a concession on land that's already occupied must give that land over to the residents.
"If the concession holders make things difficult, revoke their concession. That's an order," the president said at the time.
In the four years since then, the Rempang islanders haven't received title deeds to their land as promised, and it is they, not the concession holders, who are being moved off the land.
'Insulting' compensation offer
Mahfud, the chief security minister, said 80% of the residents had agreed to be relocated, during a Sept. 6 meeting with the project developers and the local government. As part of the agreement, the government will give each household a 500-square-meter (5,400-square-foot) plot of land and a 45-m2 (484-ft2) house at the southern tip of the island.
However, residents of the village of Sembulang, one of 16 on the island, told local media that none of them had attended the Sept. 6 meeting or signed any agreement. Even those that did attend didn't agree to any compensation offer, said Egoy, a community elder was at the meeting.
"The compensation offer is not even comparable to the loss the people will feel," Egoy told local media.
Dewi said the compensation offer was far from fair, noting that the government wasn't offering title deeds to the new homes and land. Instead, it's only offering right-to-build certificates that are good for a maximum of 50 years, unlike title deeds that have no expiration date.
"So these people will only have rights to build a house, not the right to the relocated land," she said. "This is an insult to the people of Rempang who have lived there for generations. And these certificates can be revoked at any time."
Dewi said the way the Widodo administration is handling the Rempang case flies in the face of the president's previous promises when seeking reelection.
"The Rempang case underscores the heavily liberal and capitalistic orientation of the president, who is more concerned about fulfilling [the interests of] big capital," she said. "Once the deal [with Xinyi] was signed, the government immediately put the Rempang project in the list of national strategic projects. And once that was done, the security forces were ready to be deployed."
She pointed to Widodo's order in 2021 for the police to crack down on anyone standing in the way of investors – a complete U-turn from his 2019 "order" to prioritize locals over investors.
Other senior officials have used similarly strong language, with Luhut saying in 2022 that he would "bulldoze" anyone blocking the ease of investment and permit issuance.
"The instruction from the president is crystal clear," Dewi said. "That's the paradox of Widodo's agrarian policy, because people's rights aren't being prioritized in cases like Rempang, also the Mandalika tourism development megaproject, and the project to build tourism resorts inside Komodo National Park. The people have had to give up [their land] and are treated as invisible."